Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women considers report of Afghanistan

Committee on Elimination of Discrimination 
Against Women  

10 July 2013

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today considered the combined initial and second periodic report of Afghanistan on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Introducing the report, Qasim Hashimzai, Senior Adviser to the Ministry of Justice, said that the Constitution of Afghanistan prohibited any kind of discrimination and preference among the citizens of Afghanistan.  Women were well represented in the national government and the National Development Strategy and National Action Work Plan for Women, shaped by work with civil society, both looked at human rights and gender equality as cross-cutting issues.  Among other reforms, work on the nationality law would soon be presented for the benefit of women. 

Mr. Hashimzai said more women were enrolled in schools and initiatives were in place to recruit female teachers, especially in rural areas.  Access to healthcare had increased, lowering rates of maternal mortality.  There were now more women in the police force and the judiciary.  With elections ahead, measures would be taken to ensure women could equally participate in the process, including the establishment of voting centres for women and awareness campaigns.  The Elimination of Violence against Women Law was implemented by prosecution offices in 10 provinces.

Committee Experts raised several issues of concern, including proposed amendments to the law on the elimination of violence against women on the grounds that it was un-Islamic.  The appointment of new members of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission was also questioned, given that some of them had spoken publicly against women’s rights.  Experts suggested that women needed to be more involved in the peace process for it to be successful, and inquired about the Family Code which was currently being revised.  The delegation was asked for more information on the reform of the Criminal Code, its applicability to honour killings and the situation of women victims of trafficking.  The status of women in education was also discussed.

In concluding remarks, Mr. Hashimzai thanked Experts for taking the time to listen and reiterated Afghanistan’s political will for the implementation of the Convention.  There were many problems ahead though, with the support of the international community, Afghanistan was willing and prepared to implement recommendations. 

Also in concluding remarks, Violeta Neubauer, Vice-Chairperson of the Committee,
thanked Experts for their questions and Afghanistan for the explanations provided. 

The delegation of Afghanistan consisted of representatives of the Ministry of Women Affairs, the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Supreme Court, the Permanent Mission of Afghanistan to the United Nations Office at Geneva, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Education.

The Committee will next meet in public on Thursday, 11 July, at 10 a.m., to begin its consideration of the combined sixth and seventh periodic report of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (CEDAW/C/COD/6-7).

Report of Afghanistan

The combined initial and second report of Afghanistan can be read here:  CEDAW/C/AFG/1-2

Presentation of the Report

QASIM HASHIMZAI, Senior Adviser to the Ministry of Justice, presenting the report, said that the Constitution of Afghanistan laid out that any kind of discrimination and preference was prohibited and explained that 30 per cent of seats in parliament went to women.  Afghanistan counted with a National Development Strategy and a National Action Work Plan for Women, which looked at human rights and gender equality as cross-cutting issues.  Afghanistan was ranked 15th out of 40 countries, according to the World Bank, in terms of the number of the women serving in the national government.  There were three female ministers out of a total of 25 and women were also represented in negotiations, as emergency council members, as constitutional council members and as ambassadors. 

The National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security served as a tool for ensuring the meaningful participation of women in conflict prevention, pursuant to United Nations Security Council resolution 1325.  A Technical Working Group, which included members of civil society, was helping to shape the document and the final product would be launched next year.  Significant changes were soon to be made to the nationality law, which allowed women to keep their Afghan nationality after marrying a foreigner.  Girls made up 40 per cent of students in schools and a new curriculum looked at gender issues as part of human rights education and around a third of school teachers were women.  An incentive system supported trainee teachers from areas where the number of female teachers was low and encouraged female teachers to move from urban to rural areas. 

Women were given a 10 point advantage in the civil service recruitment process.  Access to healthcare had increased from eight to 80 per cent, increasing life expectancy from 45 to 62 years.  Maternal mortality had decreased and health awareness campaigns were being run by the media.  Currently 2,000 women were in the police force and the Government planned to increase this number to 5,000.  Women were able to travel as they pleased.  In the context of the 2014 elections, steps would be taken to ensure women could equally participate in the process, including the establishment of voting centres for women and awareness campaigns.  The law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women was implemented by prosecution offices in ten provinces. 

Shelters had been opened in 18 provinces and efforts were being made to open formal courts in remote areas so that rural citizens had access to formal justice.  There were 200 women working as professional judges and legal aid had been provided in 130 cases involving women in need.  The purchase and selling of women was prohibited and sentences targeted perpetrators, including mediators, witnesses and any others taking part in such marriages.  Key institutions were in place to report on the human rights conventions and policy documents had been adopted to improve the human rights situation.  

Further developments were expected to include the awareness and the promotion of rights of women in rural areas, the revision of legal instruments to ensure the protection of women, the improvement of security, the expansion of education services to remote areas and health services for rural women, programmes to promote employment and economic development for women, and the increased participation of women in electoral processes. 

Questions by Experts

An Expert asked if the delegation could commit to the full implementation of the Convention and the full legal equality between men and women.  Was the Convention directly applicable in Afghan law, or was it necessary to translate it into national legislation?  Experts also requested additional information regarding new draft regulations which mentioned discrimination?  Experts noted that the Constitution recognised the supremacy of Sharia law and asked how this worked in practice.  What was the current state of cooperation between the government and civil society?  New members of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission had issued disparaging comments about women’s rights, was there the possibility that their appointment would be reconsidered? 

Experts also wondered about the current situation with regards to the law on violence against women as reports had been received about efforts to make serious amendments to its application.  Was it the case that women could be prosecuted for running away from home?  What was Afghanistan planning to do to strengthen such anti-discriminatory practices?  What was the place for fundamental rights in peace negotiations and did the Delegation believe the number of women involved was sufficient?  The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan had been extended until next year, what was the mandate given to this mission?  To what extent were women participating in the implementation of Security Council resolution 1335 and how were women involved in peace negotiations?  Had concessions been made to the Taliban and other armed groups to exclude women from the table?

Response by Delegation

A member of the delegation said that step-by-step actions taken to lay the foundations of gender equality were a sign of political will.  The law on violence against women was in place and the principles of Sharia law were already incorporated into the criminal and civil codes, and this was how it was applied.  When Afghanistan acceded to a convention it was applicable in its national law.  Regulations preventing discrimination mostly focused on the public sphere.  The law on violence against women was prepared on the basis of the Convention and there was cooperation with civil society, about 100 memorandums of understanding had been signed with organizations on shared work this year. 

There were perhaps issues concerning the representation of women in peace negotiations, but women were often represented at a high level in many ongoing discussions.  The law distinguished between running away from home and a crime, and women could leave situations of domestic violence.  During the past year improvements had been made in the area of women’s rights, thanks to the law on violence against women.  Awareness programmes were planned to improve the implementation of this legislation.  A draft on the Family Code was now under consideration and the Government was committed to protecting women’s rights, including the implementation of Security Council resolution 1325.  A consultative conference had got this process off the ground and a technical working group had been formed.  Capacity building activities continued and the national action plan was being drafted.  Extensive consultations were planned to ensure that the goals of the action plan were achievable and monitored. 

The Government had strengthened the power of the prosecution to tackle corruption, an office working against corruption had been created, and many cases had been brought to court.  As part of efforts to lay a foundation in the rule of law, traditional justice was being addressed, courts were functioning, and the further expansion of the justice network was planned.  The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan was assisting in the training of justice and legal aid.  A human rights unit had been created in the Ministry of Justice and was drafting a Child Code in connection to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

Questions by Experts

Despite some difficulties, the law on violence against women was a good piece of legislation but perhaps more visibility of women in law enforcement was needed.  Was the delegation able to make a direct commitment to the gains made by women in recent years?  Experts also requested more information on the anti-discrimination regulation that would be put forward.  Was there a policy of rejecting all roll-backs in women’s participation?   Experts inquired about the Afghan local police, as reports had been received that these persons themselves had perpetrated violence against women.  What would happen if the international community cut its funding for work on human right issues, would the government continue its current work? 

Response by Delegation

Afghanistan’s commitment to the rights of women was firm and non-negotiable.  Its income was gradually increasing to fill the gap if funding was cut and it hoped to be self-sufficient by 2014.  There was a good level of success in bringing women into the police force, and there were plans to double the current number of female officers.  There had been a problem with recruitment previously, with women often missing out due to a low level of education. 

Questions and responses by Experts

Experts said that no peace process could be complete and fully fledged without the involvement of women.  The creation of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was an important step, though the budget was extremely low and this did not show commitment.  More needed to be done regarding the training of lawyers and legal professionals.  Synergies with civil society were also encouraged and should be enacted in a much more proactive way.  Other Experts mentioned the new members of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, and would appreciate the reaffirmation of the Paris Principles.  The quashing of the release of a report on war crimes from 1978 to 2001 by the President was a blow to human rights; would it be possible for a revised version of the report to be released?  Regarding the law on violence against women and other gender equality issues, what kind of work was being done at the provincial level? 

Response by Delegation

There had been a debate concerning the appointments to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, and members themselves had a human right to express their opinion.  The voice of the majority was important though, and the bulk of the commissioners were in favour of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.  There was no report on war crimes and the story had been the product of misinformation, there would be no restrictions placed on such a publication.  The action plan on women had been designed for implementation at the province level by 18 sectoral ministries and it had been mainstreamed into other policy areas; it had also become part of the five year plans for governors’ offices and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was working with the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation.  Work was also being done with civil society. 

The Ministry’s budget was very low and this was related to the fact that the majority of the national budget was spent on security.  Funding for the social sector was low and it was important to work with civil society.  Commissions on the law on violence against women had been created in 34 locations across the country.  The process for agreeing to hold peace talks was enshrined in the Constitution and the rights of women would not be affected when these were held.  On the topic of war crimes, Afghanistan was a signatory to the Rome Statute and abided by its agreements.  Education on crimes against humanity was provided to judges, giving them a clear and scientific understanding of the legal precepts involved.  The commitment and political will to train the police were also present, and persons could bring allegations of rights violations to court.

Women were now playing a greater role in the judiciary and, although some small issues remained, setback was a strong term.  It had not been possible for the Lower House to convince the Upper House about the need for a quota but this had now been resolved. 

Questions by Experts

Experts inquired about concrete actions to help women overcome setbacks in employment, education and other areas through temporary special measures.  What was the reason behind the removal of some quotas for political participation?

Lack of clarity legislation related to rape and adultery was forcing women to undergo examinations or instances of victimisation.  In addition, practice forced a raped woman to marry her attacker.  What was being done to move away from traditional justice methods in dealing with these attacks?  Regarding honour killings, what was the status of the review of the Penal Code?  What measures were envisaged to support women while cases of sexual violence were brought to court?  How many shelters for women were available, was it correct that some of them were at risk of closing due to the lack of resources?  Why hadn’t Afghanistan reached out to Islamic law experts who could help draft human rights laws that sat happily alongside Sharia?  Was Afghanistan working with the Organization for Islamic Cooperation on this issue?  Were the laws and institutions in place effective and had any monitoring taken place?  Had awareness raising projects been implemented to help people understand the principles at hand? 

Response by Delegation

A member of the delegation said informal justice existed in every country, covering aspects such as family issues and debt recovery.  The government was now creating a link between informal and formal justice to make people aware of their rights and ensure they were able to go to courts and complain.  A commission of the Ministry of Justice was considering the removal of honour killings.  The practice of offering a woman in marriage to settle a blood or financial debt was criminalised, and instances that were brought to court would be punished.  Enforced marriages were illegal, and sentences of two- to ten-year imprisonment could be imposed.  With the help of Egypt, Afghanistan had received help from Islamic experts on the application of Sharia law and there were training sessions for judges on how to best apply religious texts.  Empowerment centres had been created in three locations to support female prisoners towards self-sufficiency.  Women were also able to keep their children with them in jail.  The funding for shelters came from the international community, and they offered training and literacy, but funding for them was a concern.   

The Government of Afghanistan had adopted a law against trafficking in 2008, which included support to women and children, international cooperation and heavy penalties for perpetrators.  Cases of male trafficking had also been found.  Shelters were available, provided in cooperation with the International Organization for Migration and civil society organizations. 

Questions by Experts

Trafficking was an alarming problem in Afghanistan, most of it was internal and destined for prostitution or forced labour.  Young girls were often lured by offers of work or marriage.  What was the Government doing to tackle this?  It had been also reported that prosecutions for trafficking were rare, was there a plan of action against trafficking with a gender focus?  How many shelter homes were available for women victims of trafficking and what safety measures were in place to protect these homes?  Would Afghanistan now join the Palermo protocol?  Some social practices, such as the sale or exchange of brides, should be considered as trafficking and abolished.  

No information had been providing regarding the number of honour killings, or examples of sentences imposed on perpetrators.  Did the law on violence against women criminalise this act?  In what sense was the word honour used in cases where such killing took place?  What safeguards were available to victims if they wanted to testify in cases of trafficking?  What measures were in place to help those working in prostitution to access medical care?  What types of women were using the empowerment centres?  Was the jurisprudence related to the Convention followed in addressing cases of violence against women?

Response by Delegation

In 2013 42 honour killings had been reported, which had been committed within a family framework and as the result of adultery.  Witness protection was not specifically available, though persons could choose to give evidence in secret.  The police could provide additional support if individuals were concerned about their safety.  No attacks against witnesses after giving testimony had been reported.  There were three kinds of shelters in Afghanistan, the majority of them for victims of domestic violence.  Honour killing had not been mentioned in the law on the elimination of violence against women.  Victims of trafficking benefited from rehabilitation centres and the assistance of social workers.  Prostitution was very difficult to prove, and the punishment was not as severe.  Public awareness campaigns were underway to discourage the practice.  There had been 76 cases of adultery in the last year, and these had been addressed through rehabilitation in prison. 

Questions by Experts

Experts asked whether victims or the aggressors went to court in cases of sexual violence.  Concerning convictions on adultery charges, if a man betrayed his wife did he also go to court? 

What exactly was the situation regarding proposals to amend the law on violence against women?  Could detailed information be provided regarding the Government’s review of the statute related to honour killing? 

In cases of trafficking, women needed additional protection and this issue needed further attention.  What priority had being given to the revision legal provisions lowering the severity of honour crimes?  What was the position of the Government regarding cases where women had been stoned in public?  If a woman was forced into prostitution, why was she taken into prison and not those forcing her?

Response by the Delegation

The Criminal Code, which had been in place for 50 years, was currently under revision and the committee in charge of the process would reflect the many changes since then, including the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.  Informal justice covered a number of domestic, but not criminal, areas and work was being done to improve communication between formal and informal channels.  Training had been provided so that such matters could did not contradict the laws of Afghanistan.  Decisions in an informal manner could be brought to formal courts if the parties were not satisfied.  Persons forced into committing crimes would not be held responsible for their actions. 

There were two types of amendments projects on the law on the elimination of violence against women, one came from parliamentarians who sought to weaken the law; on the other hand, the Ministry of Women Affairs who sought to include additional elements.  The law was in accordance with Islam, despite assertions to the contrary, and this clarification had been communicated to politicians.  Stoning did happen on occasion in rural areas but not as part of the formal justice system, and was not prescribed as a punishment under law. 

Questions by Experts

Husbands’ permission was needed for women to work; how was the impact of this requirement measured and were there plans to remove it?  Were there quotas for women to be represented in provincial judiciaries?  Would training or support be offered to potential female candidates in the 2014 elections?  Women in prominent positions had been assassinated, what was done to ensure their security? 

There were no women in the Supreme Court and it was essential that women were seen at such levels.  There seemed to be cases of violence against women in public assemblies.  Were there any special measures concerning the appointment of women in the development sphere?  How could the Committee be sure, in concrete terms, that Afghanistan wanted to invest in women and to involve them in the policy-making process?   

An Expert asked if steps were being taken to ensure the smooth transition into the mooted new nationality law.  Was an Afghan woman marrying a foreigner allowed to keep her nationality?  By and large, women did not own personal identification documents, were steps being taken to remedy this? 

Response by the Delegation

The Supreme Judicial Council allowed for women’s participation, though there were no quotas.  Appointments were made on the basis of merit, following a recommendation from the Parliament, and qualified female candidates were needed.  Women were well-represented in other areas of the judiciary and their numbers were increasing.  The Afghan Government was committed to having a multi-agency commission on the Convention.  Security was an issue and the Government was trying to provide support for candidates and other high-profile women.

According to the Constitution, every person in Afghanistan could have dual nationality and this was enshrined in the new citizenship law.  Content from the Refugee Convention had also been included and women were allowed to hold their own identity papers. 

Questions by Experts

The education sector faced many challenges for girls to receive education, including cultural norms, and the proportion of girls attending to school had not increased even though overall attendance had.  What impact were initiatives to get girls into school having?  Only about 20 per cent of girls enrolled at the primary level went on to receive secondary education.  The numbers of attacks against girls attending school had increased, were any follow-up actions taken on this?  Reports suggested these attacks had in fact been committed with impunity.  The low levels of participation in the higher levels of education were also of concern, as women could not play a role without the right education. 

The public dissemination of negative images of working women had not been countered by the Government, what was being done to ensure that the right to work was properly implemented?  Different measures and policies needed to be applied in different sectors, were results available from the training programmes for women in the professional and vocational centres?  Did women enjoy maternity rights?  Were standard operational procedures in place to investigate sexual harassment? 

Response by the Delegation

The reach of education centres had increased and resources had been directed towards areas where it was possible to help as many young people as possible.  Remoteness and budget constraints remained an issue.  There were not enough qualified female teachers in rural areas to teach in girls schools and teacher training centres had been established in a number of areas, updating the skills of existing staff and bringing new female staff into the system.  Around 12,000 new teaching jobs were being created every year and more protection was being provided by the Ministry of Education and the police. 

Some teachers were being deployed from urban to rural areas and cash transfers to keep girls in the education longer were also being trialled.  Positive discrimination aimed at bringing women into the higher education system though a backlog in admissions meant that fewer women came through from secondary to higher education.  Women could make their own choices concerning which subjects they studied and entrance to university was based upon merit, and those unsuccessful in popular areas such as science or medicine could choose to study other courses. 

All citizens were able to work and labour laws stated that staff were entitled to equal wages, with due regard for ranks.  Maternity leave was set for a period of 90 days after birth and breastfeeding was allowed for in the labour law.  The concepts of direct or indirect discrimination at work had been decided with the International Labour Organization.  Within Government and formal sectors there were no issues with women’s rights, but in the private and informal sectors it was more difficult.  A large number of women had attended training centres and some had acquired additional skills overseas.  The situation of child labour was also a problem. 

Questions by Experts

The economy needed to be developed to move away from a drug economy.  Drugs, poverty and other issues which may militate against women needed to be addressed.  The report stated that women were completing degrees in “areas where women were most needed,” what did that mean?  Also, those who failed courses were sent to teacher training, was that appropriate?

What was the Government doing to mitigate the negative impact of traditional practices preventing women from seeing male doctors?  This could restrict access to contraception and increase maternal mortality.  The report said that care should move away from midwives and onto skilled doctors, but how would this be possible without women doctors?  Were preventive measures in place for addressing HIV and what strategies were in place to increase the level of reporting among women?  Was post-exposure prophylaxis available after rape?  Regarding abortion, were there exceptions from the rule which allowed them only in case of risk to the life of the mother; for example, when this was a situation of rape, incest or where the child was severely impaired?  What measures were in place to prevent drug use and providing follow-up?

Response by the Delegation

Afghanistan’s economy was improving and the Government could make efforts to help those below the poverty line.  Offices and a separate police service had been created in areas where the drugs were produced to address this issue.  The problem was international, however, and support from the global community was needed to deal with international mafias involved.  Families were given advance payments by criminals, becoming indentured to raise the illegal crops, but programmes were now in place to support these families to move into regular farming.  Progress had been made in the enrolment of girls in higher education, as well as in increasing the number of graduates.  Gender had been mainstreamed into the curriculum, ensuring young people knew their rights, and counselling was available for students that had been sexually harassed as well as channels of communication to report these incidents. 

The Government was trying to implement campaigns to educate women and get them to attend clinics.  Incentives were being offered to bring doctors to rural areas but, in some areas, midwives were the only form of care available to women.  Mobile centres offering sonography were being used though better qualified technicians were needed.  Most drug users in Afghanistan were men, and this was the most common form of transmission of HIV, which explained prevalence trends.  Abortion was not legal and could only be practiced in cases of extreme risk to the mother.

Questions by Experts

Was data available on credit and loans for women?  As Afghanistan moved towards self-sustainability, were there plans to augment the budget of the Ministry for Women’s Affairs, considering development cooperation schemes had provided such support in the past? 

Women were affected by challenges related to poverty and the Government had put in place programmes to eliminate poverty, what measures were being taken to ensure that the needs of women in rural areas were met?  What criteria were used for allocating land to migrants?  Concerning refugees and internally-displaced persons, had the Government taken any measures to support vulnerable women within these groups?

The Shiite Personal Status Law and Family Code envisaged were not in harmony with international Conventions, were there plans to change this and was additional information on the content available?  Were women involved in and educated about this process?  Was it correct that there was only one family court in Kabul with jurisdiction over family matters?  The lack of registration of marriage and divorce had been reported, was the Government planning to focus on these issues?  To what degree were women aware of their right to divorce and was legal aid offered?

Response by the Delegation

There were precedents for the support of women’s projects, despite self sufficiency, and some such commitments had been received. 

Vocational training, loans and micro-credit were part of plans to bring women above the poverty line.  Similar programmes were to be put in place for refugee women in the border areas.  More capacity and support were needed to tackle this problem.

Family law was being drafted by the Ministry of Women Affairs and was in the process of being finalised.  The age of marriage was 16 for girls and 18 for boys.  Women were involved in the legislative department.  Sharia law gave men the right to divorce, but women could also ask for separation.  There were family courts in eight departments and training was to be provided on the personal status law.  Married couples needed a certificate of marriage when they travelled and a committee had been set up to make the registration process easier. 

Concluding Remarks

QASIM HASHIMZAI, Senior Adviser to the Ministry of Justice, thanked Experts for taking the time to listen and reiterated Afghanistan’s political will for the implementation of the Convention.  There were many problems ahead though, with the support of the international community, Afghanistan was willing and prepared to implement recommendations. 

VIOLETA NEUBAUER, Vice-Chairperson of the Committee, thanked Experts for their questions and Afghanistan for the explanations provided. 


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